20.08.2014 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Alert: “Two residential structures demolished in Al Aqaba, 15 displaced.”
I check the map, we call the mayor of the village, Hadj Sami Sadiq: “The Israelis came and demolished the houses early in the morning,” he tells us, “please come.”
It is my first experience of a house demolition. Colleagues told me that it’s like going to a funeral. I don’t like funerals.
After an hour and a half drive and some questioning at a military checkpoint, we arrive in Al Aqaba, where Hadj Sami is waiting for us.
We go on foot as he directs us up a steep slope. Against the backdrop of tall hills covered in rocks, scattered with wiry trees, I am greeted by two sizable piles of rubble and bent metal. The first thing I notice, however, is a tiny shoe on the ground. The pink glitter contrasts with the unforgiving white grey rubble surrounding it. So I know already that young children live, sorry, lived, here.
Dayf Zawahre welcomes us into an open tent and offers us coffee. Even at times of personal disaster, manners and hospitality aren’t sacrificed here. It feels quite similar to the British habit of a cup of Twinings, that belief that it may just make everything better.
Dayf seems confused, a bit shell shocked, unsurprisingly. We asked him what happened.
“They came at 8 o’clock in the morning, two bulldozers and many army jeeps, I was at home with my family. They gave us only 5 minutes to take our things from the house, it was not enough time.”
I see the evidence of this. Household items, clothes, schoolbooks, strewn amongst the rubble. “The children were surprised, and afraid. It was the first time that the little one experienced it.” Dayf has six children, the youngest is ‘Uday, who is three years old. My colleague took this beautiful picture of him:
I go to another tent to speak with ‘Uday’s mother, Hajar (in Bedouin culture there is a separation of the genders when visitors come). Hajar recognises my colleague Lea who visited her a year ago in her other life as a journalist, she is so glad that a friend has come back to see her again, and for a moment the reason we’re there is happily forgotten. ‘Uday is boisterous and pulls on his mother’s clothes, she keeps having to adjust her headscarf, I notice how pretty she is.
Hajar is clearly comfortable, since we are all women. She stands close to us and talks freely: “I had concrete floors and a door before, now I have a tent that I cannot close, there are scorpions and snakes outside and they can come in to where we sleep now. I am worried for my children, ‘Uday’s asthma is very bad now because of all the dust.”
“Why do they do it?”
It’s a good question. Two main reasons are given by the Israeli military for house demolitions.
Firstly, that the structures were built without a building permit. I was talking to an Israeli art shop owner in Tiberias about this, as her husband works in construction in Israel. She pointed out that this is the same all over the world. To build something you have to have a building permit. If you don’t, then the authorities will demolish it. Sounds reasonable, does it not?
When you hear the reality, I hazard that you’ll think it’s not. The permission required is Israeli permission for Palestinians to build on Palestinian land. Already see the start of an issue? And 94% of building applications are refused.
Imagine you are English and you own a plot of land in Yorkshire (for my French friends reading this, switch the countries around!). Say France is militarily occupying the country, and it’s not a short term, imagine you’ve lived with 47 years of this. And to fix a wall on the outside of your house, you have to ask France’s permission. But 94% of the time, France say no. Say the current wall is crumbling and in desperate need of repair. Or you really want to build a self contained flat next door because your son is starting a family, or your parents are ill and need to move near. What to do? You applied, France said no. So you build anyway, and the French army come and demolish, giving you 5 minutes to get everything that you, or your elderly parents, care about out of the house. Your money is wasted, the building is in pieces, and you need to find somewhere to shelter your family. Your mother is crying because her precious photographs are gone, but the French army just laughs at her. And just to put the icing on the cake, you know that you can expect a bill from the French army for the work they put in to demolish your house. So you need to figure out how to pay for that, or they can put you in prison.
It feels wrong doesn’t it? Well it is. Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) the universal laws that govern conduct in times of war, wanton destruction of property is a war crime. Displacing civilians is a war crime. Ask the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, you’ll get the same answer.
This is because protection of civilian property is specifically provided for in these International Laws: Article 46 of the Hague Regulations explicitly prohibits the confiscation of private property. Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits any destruction of private or public authority property (so that also includes schools and health clinics, many of which have demolition orders in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere in occupied Palestine).
More importantly, an overriding obligation on the occupying power is to ensure “public order and safety.” I wonder how demolishing homes and displacing the civilian population can be considered to be ensuring public order and safety of the occupied population?
The second half of this obligation is to “respect, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country”. One of the first acts of the Israeli Occupation was to issue Military Order 2 of 1967, which abolished any law in force in occupied Palestine that conflict with any military orders issued by the occupying power. An Israeli peace activist I met in Bethlehem, Kobi Snitz, accurately described what we’re left with as a “buffet of laws”, where “Israel takes what suits it from the Ottoman, Jordanian and British Mandate laws, and issues any military orders it likes.” Legally, the planning regime in occupied Palestine is in breach of international law, and therefore permits or lack of permits to build, are irrelevant.
Respected Swedish NGO, Diakonia, who are legal experts on Palestine, confirmed:
“The establishment of a long-term Israeli planning regime that excludes Palestinians from the decision making process: violates Israel’s obligation as an Occupying power to respect existing local laws, and represents an unnecessary transgression into the civilian affairs of the protected population.”
The second reason given is that the demolitions or refusals of permits in the first place, are necessary for security.
Destruction of private property of the occupied population is strictly limited to cases where it is rendered “absolutely necessary for military operations” and deemed proportional to the military advantage expected. As is usual here, the Israeli military give no reason to the family. I will leave you to consider whether the demolition of Dayf and Hajar’s modest two room concrete building, in the rural Palestinian town of Al Aqaba was absolutely necessary for military operations, and whether the homelessness and trauma forced on their children is proportional.
Forced transfer of protected persons (as Dayf and his family are because they are civilians of the occupied territory) is strictly limited to evacuations for their security or military imperative. And the occupying military must ensure that proper accommodation is provided to receive the protected persons, that the removals are effected in satisfactory conditions of hygiene, health, safety and nutrition, and that members of the same family are not separated. The army do not provide families with alternative accommodation after they have destroyed their home. The Red Cross came and gave Dayf a tent. Many Red Cross tents also have demolition orders on them as the army consider them a structure without a permit.
We return to the main tent to the father and mayor Hadj Sami. A social worker from the YMCA has arrived. He tell me that the day of the demolition the children were meant to go on a swimming trip. He promises to rearrange it, and that he will come to see the children regularly to provide psycho-social support. But then he must leave to the neighbouring family, who have 3 children made homeless at the hands of the same military bulldozer on the very same day. Then on to the next demolished house, and so it continues. This is life under occupation.
Want to do something about it?
You can! There is something called Third Party State Responsibility in International Humanitarian Law. It means that all signatories, including the UK and France, have a duty to take all appropriate measures to demand that other states cease breaches of the Geneva Conventions (the legal explanation from Diakonia is on page 32 of this report).
Write to your MP, tell them that the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions figures show that 359 structures have been demolished by the Israeli army in the occupied West Bank since the start of this year, link to this article of Dayf’s home in Al Aqaba. Remind them that this is in breach of International Law and that the UK has an obligation to take measures to ensure compliance of other states under Common Article 1 of all four Geneva Conventions 1949. As a concerned constituent, ask what they, and our Foreign Minister, are doing about it.
 Wanton destruction of property without military necessity, and the unlawful transfer of persons, amount to grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949. Under Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, grave breaches amount to a war crime.
 Ibid. Page 8